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Expert Editorial Tips for Writers

Ask a Book Editor: 7 First Novel Blunders to Avoid

Photo by  Daniel Garcia  on  Unsplash

Photo by Daniel Garcia on Unsplash

As daunting as it can seem, most literary agents and acquiring editors are open to discovering new talent. And a big part of that is reading first novel manuscripts. Unfortunately, first novels too often share writing tics, quirky choices, or downright clichés. These common missteps can hurt your chance of being the brilliant gem in their inbox.

The GOOD news is that many of these "mistakes" are easy to spot--and thus fix. Sure, there are probably successful exceptions for each item below, but let's go ahead and stack the odds in your favor. Sidestep these "beginner clues" and you'll be on your way to the old pro club. 

1. First chapter begins with protagonist waking up and ends with him or her going to bed. Unless it's Groundhog Day, it's a chapter, not a neat day. Plus never lead with an alarm clock.

2. Looking in the mirror (or any reflective object) to describe a character's appearance in great detail--especially at the start after waking up. Let the relevant facts naturally unfold versus performing the literary equivalent of a police sketch. 

3. Assigning main characters too similar names. Why make it hard for readers to keep track of or tell apart your otherwise unique characters? If your narrator is Sally, resist the urge to make Sam her love interest and Sal and Sully her BFFs. [Side note: My alliteration-loving parents gave my brothers and I all "P" names to match our surname--but unless that's an intentional detail, we'd make lousy characters.]

4. Waiting too long for anything (atypical) to happen. Remember, readers have signed up for a story, not an uneventful stake-out. Start your tale close to some significant turning point and readers will happily keep turning the pages.

5. Introducing too many characters upfront. First, let the reader get to know the protagonist--only introducing other characters in relation to him or her. Think of it like a first date versus a group hang. You can't get to know someone if there's too much surrounding "noise."

6. Adverbs galore. Nine times out of ten, these are not your friend. They're clutter on the page. Choose a stronger verb if necessary to convey meaning. And (almost) never use them with dialogue tags (aka, overusing adverbs before or after "said/asked/replied/etc" (e.g., "he said cruelly") to convey tone or emotion versus letting it come through the dialogue itself).

7. Opening with a dream. Whether intended as foreshadowing, back story, or a bait-and-switch (What? I don't live in a castle?), opening with a dream is one device we'd all like to wake up from.

What drives YOU crazy (or admit to committing)?